Welcome to TP Ideas‘ weekly roundup of the best conservative writing! Every Friday, we take a look at three pieces by right-leaning writers that constructively articulate core elements of their worldview. The goal isn’t to find conservatives telling us how right liberals are, but rather to pick out writing that helps liberals understand where their ideological foes are coming from.
So let’s get started.
1. “Why We Debate The Unimportant Issues” — Scott Sumner, EconLog
Scott Sumner is an economist who’s done an enormous amount to push for fundamental reform of monetary policy — a crusade that’s won him accolades from the quadrant of the left-leaning blogosphere that pays attention to the Federal Reserve. But Sumner is also a libertarian, and thus happy to call the left out on what he thinks are its mistakes. In this piece for the right-leaning EconLog, Sumner argues that liberals happily contribute to an unhealthy dynamic in the public discourse that allows obviously bad and destructive policies to remain on the books:
Because I am a utilitarian, I believe important issues are those where the expected effect of a change in policy on the public’s well-being is especially large. And in general, that will occur in cases where the issue is relatively uncontroversial. If it’s a slam dunk that a crazy policy should be abandoned, then there are clear gains to the public in doing so.
In contrast, consider controversial policy initiatives like the minimum wage, ObamaCare, and Keystone. Ask why are they controversial? Clearly it’s because you can find lots of really smart pundits on each side of the issue. But that means there must be really good arguments on each side of the issue. For instance, proponents of the minimum wage point to the gains for low income people, and studies casting doubt on the employment effects. Those on the other side (including me) point to other studies, and the basic presumption in economics that making a resource more costly will reduce the quantity demanded of that resource.
The perverse result is that the bad policies are uncontroversial, which means they’re ignored by the public discourse, which means they don’t get scrapped. Sumner also notes beneficial ideas like a carbon tax, relaxing zoning laws, and relaxing occupational licensing that get ignored because of this same dynamic. It’s essentially a warning that the terms and incentives of political combat can take on a life of their own, running policymakers down suboptimal rabbit holes.
That said, the left could reply that this isn’t the only reason a policy could be controversial: it could be enormously beneficial form a purely utilitarian standpoint, but powerful industries and voter constituencies get the short end of the stick under the policy, so they oppose it. And that’s why it’s controversial. Obamacare seems like a prime example of this.
2. “The Rise Of Secular Religion” — David P. Goldman, The American Interest
Broadly speaking, both the opponents and champions of modern secular liberalism cast it as an alternative worldview to both individual religious psychology and the religious approach to organizing culture. But Joseph Bottum, a devout Catholic and the former chief editor of the conservative religious magazine First Things, has a different take in his new book. That thesis, as expounded upon by David Goldman in The American Interest, posits that secular liberalism actually makes wide use of the psychology and cultural form — it just replaces the conceptual content with its own modern principles.
Bottum… examines post-Protestant secular religion with empathy, and contends that it gained force and staying power by recasting the old Mainline Protestantism in the form of catechistic worldly categories: anti-racism, anti-gender discrimination, anti-inequality, and so forth. What sustains the heirs of the now-defunct Protestant consensus, he concludes, is a sense of the sacred, but one that seeks the security of personal salvation through assuming the right stance on social and political issues. Precisely because the new secular religion permeates into the pores of everyday life, it sustains the certitude of salvation and a self-perpetuating spiritual aura. Secularism has succeeded on religious terms. That is an uncommon way of understanding the issue, and a powerful one.
In essence, secular liberals may not believe in the literal existence of the sacred and salvation, but their commitments to the left’s social and economic goals, its critiques of discrimination and hierarchy and so forth, serve the same basic emotional functions as those literal beliefs. Thus has secular liberalism achieved its own “re-enchantment and spiritual thickening of reality.”
The pithy leftwing response to this idea could easily be: Good! Those principles deserve to be treated with that kind of import. But it’s an interesting suggestion that the religious approach to reality, which liberals have long had a mixed relationship with, is much harder to escape and far more deeply imbedded in human nature than they realize.
3. “Busting The Myth That Earnings Lag Productivity” — E21 Staff, E21
One talking point Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) uses to press for a minimum wage hike is that average inflation-adjusted hourly wages fell by 7 percent since 1973, even as economic productivity rose 100 percent. This week, the staff of E21, a conservative economic publication, drew on a previous Heritage Foundation study to contest the empirical foundation of Warren’s claim:
Average hourly wage data only measure hourly earners, omitting salaried employees. These data also leave out benefits that employees receive, such as health insurance, pensions, vacations, and sick leave. The value of these benefits has risen substantially over the past half-century. Accounting for them leads to a 30 percent rise in total compensation since 1973, compared to a 7 percent decrease when only hourly wage data are analyzed, calculated economist James Sherk of the Heritage Foundation.
In addition, Warren’s calculations use the Consumer Price Index to adjust for inflation. This index has been well-documented to overstate the level of inflation, and many government agencies have stopped using it. Using the more accurate Implicit Price Deflator for Non-Farm Business, used by the Congressional Budget Office and the Bureau of Economic Analysis, together with the combination of salaried workers and total compensation, brings the increase in earnings up to a 77 percent increase since 1973.
The takeaway is that after these adjustments are made, the growth in compensation since the early 1970s tracks the growth in productivity pretty closely.
Now, is this a debunk of broader concerns about inequality? That’s questionable. It’s average earnings, so if incomes are really taking off for one portion of American workers, it will tend to mask that. That gap between high earners and low earners has been a major driver of inequality over the last few decades, while the difference between people who get their income from labor versus from owning capital only took prominence relatively recently. That the divergence from productivity still shows up when we look at median incomes is telling.
That said, this is a good reminder that politicians’ talking points — especially in economics — usually rest on long chains of unseen assumptions about what the best data is for addressing a particular question, and how that data should be interpreted and integrated.
Here’s a piece by Josh Bivens at the Economic Policy Institute fleshing out the distinction between average earnings and median earnings in more detail. The takeaway is that averaging does indeed mask an enormous amount of inequality: the earnings of the top five percent are so much higher than everyone else’s that they yank the overall average up to where it appears to track productivity pretty closely. Even those in the top 90 to 95 percent fall significantly behind productivity when singled out, and the rise in non-income benefits (health insurance, pensions, etc) has not been nearly enough to compensate.